The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 24, 2015

The South Comes North, Conquers and Desegregates: Anne Babson and Caroline Randall Williams read tonight in Pittsburgh

Oh, readers of this blog,whom I adore — please come revel with me tonight.  I am not inviting you to meet me in a wheat field under the full moon with a blanket.  I am not inviting you to look for me hiding in a cave on the edge of Hannibal, Missouri, so we can sneak in the church balcony and watch our own funeral.  I am not inviting you to slip out of the governor’s ball so we can elope in my mother’s buggy.  No, none of these.  I am asking you to escape with me North.

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

I am reading tonight (October 24) in Pittsburgh at East End Book Exchange, 4754 Liberty Avenue, in the Little Italy section of town known as Bloomfield, at 7 pm.  The reading is called “Iambic Drawl.” With me will be the brilliant and lovely Caroline Randall Williams.  Caroline Randall Williams is a poet from Tennessee who has done something really radical — she has written a book of poetry, Lucy Negro Redux, in which she reclaims (and repurposes) Shakespeare for African-American Southern women, who have often had complicated and rather painful relationships with older white men. She talks about it, really talks about it in her very clever book, a book so clever it hurts my feelings that I have never thought of anything so clever to write myself.

I will read selections and delicatessen cuts from my collection The White Trash Pantheon, which resets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South. In it, as many of you know, I write about white privilege, although I do so with a lot of humor, as this allows white folks like me to examine our pretensions and reject them.  I also write about idolatry, as myths about white people in the South have engendered false gods that some have actually revered.

Together, Miz Caroline and I are busting a few myths, including, but not limited to:

  1. White people have a unified and illustrious heritage.
  2. Black people do not.
  3. White people have some kind of a corner on the market for heroism.
  4. Black people are merely victims in society, not participants, not contributors.
  5. White women are the only women who are really beautiful and elegant.
  6. Black women are the only women who are really drudges.
  7. Old books have nothing fresh to say to new people.
  8. New people have nothing fresh to say to old books.

We are going to tear down these walls and others and dance around linguistically.You should come out and hear us!

In high-falluting literary and scholarly circles, there is an abiding tendency to see African-American writers as operating in some sort of a cloister wholly separate in their influences and their production of poetry, and if white folks should read that poetry, it is because we are committed to being somehow politically correct.  Paris Review poetry editor Richard Howard once remarked that black poets would only be great writers when they stopped writing about race all the time.  What Mr. Howard failed to realize was that he was writing about his own race all the time, too, the presumptuous

 privilege of belonging to a dominant racial group that has believed that its culture was THE culture and that African-American culture was merely multiculture.  The work of Caroline Randall-Williams belies this notion, as I hope does my own.  Mr. Howard’s idea is wrong, and it ought to be obvious to all — African-American culture is at the center of all cultural achievements in America, not a parenthetical influence at all.  We should not read African-American poets’ work because we are being democratic.  We should read African-American poets’ work because much of it is good, some of it great.

This woman is on her way toward greatness!

This woman is on her way to greatness!

I am reading, then, with Caroline Randall-Williams because I actually get to — she is a good poet on her way very possibly to being a great poet.  If you meet her tonight, which I hope you will, you will almost instantly realize she is ten times smarter than the rest of us.  She is also delightful and gorgeous. Her career is a freight train barreling down the track, and we can get out of the way or get on board, because she is part of the next big thing, as I hope to be right with her.  She likes what I do to old books in my writing, because she likes to mess with old books, too. Call it quilting or decoupage if you like, but we have been calling it post-post modernism.  We deride the Derridian idea that text has no inherent meaning.  We just think that we get to couple authorial intentions of old to our own; we write back.  We also write around.  We write beneath and above.  We believe in capital-T-truths, but you’ll have to ask us nicely if you want to hear which ones.

So come out to East End Book Exchange tonight at 7 pm.  We are going to be post-post.  We are going to be the Confederacy’s worst nightmare.  The South rises again tonight and wins Pennsylvania, only it’s not as General Lee imagined it, not at all.

March 29, 2011

Going Medieval on You?

That's me on the right.

Writers read much differently than literature professors do.

A writer, you see, is like a bad house guest at a crowded party at a wealthy mansion.

First, she stands in the corner, observes critically, “I don’t like the wall paper in this room.  What was she thinking?”

However, when the other guests are all distracted by somebody showing vacation photos or a cute baby whose nap has just ended, the writer inches close to the credenza, backing into it right where the Faberge egg is displayed, and while everyone is making baby talk in the other part of the room, the writer gently tips the treasure egg into her purse.

Later, when she publishes, the egg has made a reappearance, only this time, it’s in a different setting altogether, stolen and repurposed.

Literature professors are the good house guests.  They remark how the addition of the new wall paper clearly indicates a new trend in the style of the hostess, and he or she writes a lovely explanation for the shift.  The Faberge egg is admired at a distance and cataloged in memory.  When the literature professor attends a cocktail gathering at the kleptomaniac writer’s house, rather than shout “thief!” accusingly, he or she remarks how similar the tastes of this hostess are to the tastes of the other hostess, and the robbery is called a form of homage or pastiche, not a burglary.

I’ve always been a writer when I read, not a lit professor, even though I can write well critically and am able to understand pastiches and homages along with the polite house guests.  I just steal the good stuff so I can use it my own way later.

Just like a cat burglar (think Robie the Cat from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief), I try to get invited to (to read, that is) every swanky affair I can, to pull of as many heists as I can of stylistic accomplishments. This makes my creative written work originally eclectic.

However, I am admonished here at the University of Mississippi to specialize.  I understand of course — I can’t just keep stealing creatively.  I have to become an expert of analysis in one area.  I have to write a dissertation that is grounded in a period of time and to specialize in that period of time for a good decade or so before even considering branching off in other critical areas.

The only problem is that I honestly love works from different eras and have read with a hungry-girl-at-a-good-smorgasbord voraciousness from every time and place.  To narrow my specialization makes me, well, confused.

I have narrowed it down thus far — I will be an expert in English (with some French) literature, not American literature.  That said, I will continue to read interesting writers from everywhere.

Or is that me holding the teacup? What do you think?

Further, I have narrowed it down to a coin flip between periods — either I will focus on the Victorians and all their various repressions, or I will go Medieval.

Medievalists in the English departments are considered the weirdest of the weirdos, the nerdiest of the nerds.  Medievalists are a little bit crazy.  They believe, often enough, that the world is in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, including over who ought to fill the copy machine with toner and paper.  They can’t quite relate to the debate in the faculty meeting because no one has claimed divine right.  There are twice as many job openings for Medievalists and half as many qualified applicants.  Weird is not the only minimum job requirement — see below for the others — but it helps.

I am certainly weird enough, by a voice vote of all who have met me, to be a Medievalist.

However, it is not just a costume change that is involved.  Going Medieval is serious business.  It is important not only to speak English (which of course I do) and another modern language (fluent French and a smattering of Italian, in my case) but to speak what are called Middle dialects of these languages (I can read Middle English and Middle French, provided they are typeset).  I also ought to learn Latin and Old English, which has a different alphabet than our English and sounds like Vikings snorting when spoken aloud.

It’s like this — there are the Trekkies who go to the conventions — they would be the ones who would be akin to the Victorianists, nerdy enough to impress others with their nerdiness, but still kind of loosely nerdy, possibly capable of socializing at a non-nerdy party.  Then, there are the Trekkies who learn Klingon.  In order to be a Medievalist, I really have to learn the equivalent of Klingon.

Once you go Medieval, there’s no going back.  Other nerds are slightly in awe, because (for instance) I am working on a paper that discusses the allegorical trope of New Jerusalem in a Middle French writer’s works, and I had to spend the week figuring out if the Vulgate Latin translation of the psalms, despite Saint Jerome‘s misogyny, feminized the depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem in any way.  It does, and this is central to my argument regarding Christine de Pizan‘s Le Livre de la Cite des Dames.

With the Victorians, for instance, I’m presenting a paper that looks at The Mikado in light of Oscar Wilde’s declarations regarding Japanese nick-nacks and the blue china/japonaiserie craze of the late 1800s.  Is this most people’s idea of a weekend leisure?  No, but it’s fluffy compared to the work of the Medievalist.  One involves the repressed anxieties of a high-collar society that holds itself back from its true intentions at every turn and requires the mechanics of interjections of literary theory of unlimited pretensions where apt.  The other is buck-wild — think liturgical papers about what a parish should do when a werewolf gets loose in the farmlands — but requires a working knowledge of a defunct whole world’s insanity, and it is almost impossible to say anything with absolute conclusiveness because nobody really knows what it was like to walk around in the days of King Arthur, if in fact  he ever really existed.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I will always read like a writer.  I’ll be stealing and re-appropriating all the good stuff for my own creative work.  However, regarding this critical work, because I just love books, all kinds of books, bottom line — I’m having trouble deciding between the prim but approachable ladies in the photo or the lovely but ultimately unknowable allegorical women in the illuminated manuscript.

So what do you think I should do?  I am seriously taking a poll here and would welcome all opinions accompanied with reasons why.  Which of these two areas should I pick and why?  Should I go Medieval?  Tell me what you think so that I make the right decision, or as Chaucer would say, so that “I coude wel chesen alderbest.”

September 11, 2010

Who is really King of the Hill?

The cartoonish pair of us on our wedding day

I have come to a shocking realization — my husband and I are suspiciously cartoonish, or rather we suspiciously resemble the cartoon characters of Mike Judge — Hank and Peggy Hill.

Might we be two-dimensional caricatures of the American dream?

Here’s the evidence that compels me to bring this possibility to the attention of  local authorities, such as yourselves, of the bloggosphere:

  • Chuck and I are living in the South.  Peggy and Hank Hill live in a different part of the South, but Arlen, Texas and Vicksburg, Mississippi are the same size.
  • My husband speaks with a slow Texan accent, and so does Hank.
  • Hank sells propane and propane accessories, and my husband, as a petrochemist, makes propane.
  • Peggy Hill is a substitute teacher of Spanish in the Texas public school system.  I teach English in Mississippi colleges.
  • We have a ranch-style house that resembles, but for the surrounding landscape, the Hill house in King of the Hill.
  • Hank has an old hunting dog.  We have a yellow lab.
  • Chuck has been known to hang out with guys, not say much, and drink beer, although not in some alley near the house.
  • Peggy is a Boggle champion.  I am a poetry slam semi-finalist.
  • Hank played high school football, then quit football afterwards.  So did Chuck.
  • Peggy wears a large shoe size.  So do I.

There are dissimilarities, of course.  Between the two of us, we are better educated than the Hills.  We would not squash the creative ambitions of a son to be the greatest prop comic of all time.  We do not have a Lu-Ann, Laotian neighbors, a friend who is an exterminator, and when Chuck mows the lawn, he does so with an upright mower.  Peggy actually can’t speak Spanish worth a dang.  I speak French fluently.  I pray to God that my hair is not a tenth so bulbous, even on my worst hair day, as Peggy’s. The house may  be ranch-style, but we are surrounded by land, and I’d like to think that the interior design reflects my devotion to HGTV and exquisite taste — not Peggy’s completely irony-free mid-century rut.

How little or much are we like these two-dimensional figures?

Perhaps the “coincidence” here is only that Mike Judge is clever and insightful.  Perhaps the series’ success stems from his keen eye for real Americans.

Still, I don’t know if I can accept that answer.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder, somehow, if I am a figment of Mike Judge’s imagination.

Mike thinks, therefore I am.

For all this this time, I have been on a quest to be a better person.  Perhaps, like Jessica Rabbit, whatever my flaws, they are not my fault — I am just drawn that way.

Our cartoon yellow lab, here in Vicksburg/Arlen, is chewing on a paper cup she found in the trash.  In a minute, my t-shirt clad, bespectacled propane-knowledgeable husband will come in here, his jeans oddly low on his body, and take it from her mouth.

Perhaps the proof of my non-cartoon existence comes from my politics.  Chuck and I voted for Obama.  Hank and Peggy Hill wouldn’t have probably done that, I think, at least not Hank.

I admit it would take a lot of pressure off us if we turned out  to be cartoon characters.  PhD-level deconstructionist theory readings would  become existentially sound, as I, too, would be fictional.  A lot less would be messy if we were animated instead of lethargic but life-like.

I had better get back to my readings of literary theory.  Perhaps an end note to one of my assigned articles will point to me.

Blog at WordPress.com.